In 2016, I got an email from someone in Saratov, Russia, claiming to be a long-lost, distant relative. Although that sounds odd, my gut said that they were telling the truth. I don’t know if the feeling came from my longing for family connection, or that these relatives had done so much work to find me.
A couple of years later, I decided to fly to Riga, Latvia — a northern European country on the Baltic Sea that was formerly part of the Soviet Union — to meet them and then travel with them to the place from whence our common ancestors came.
Together, we drove to a small village on the Latvia-Lithuania border. The town itself had once been home to a mixed Jewish and Lithuanian population. I wanted to know what history had left for us to explore.
My phantasmic family
Since I was adopted as a seven-year-old after living in foster homes for a few years, I have limited memories of my birth family. I knew that they had come from Latvia, but little else until I started to uncover my grandfather’s story.
As I learned more, questions about my family sprouted like hydra’s heads. Somehow, I ended up as the sole survivor of my family, members of which had fled Europe during World War II. Getting answers about family history had been hard-fought. Most of my quest has involved sorting through old photographs, journals, records, and documents. I have been at it for a while.
Despite spending more than a decade getting more information, I felt no closer to knowledge. My family still felt phantasmic — a memory that I questioned all the time. I needed something physical to help me anchor my thoughts and feelings about my family and all those whom fate had claimed.
My sense had always been that the only way to get real answers would be to go to the source. I needed to go back to the place where all had begun. I never had an idea as to how all of that would happen, only that it would.
That I would go there with relatives from Russia added a twist. Our common ancestor lived three generations before, in the early part of the 20th century.
A road trip with my Russian relatives
I had only met my relatives from Russia the night before we embarked on our road trip, after a 20-hour plane ride from Los Angeles. Jet lag compounded the surreality. A couple, my relatives were older and had children in their early 40s, roughly my age. They both seemed to be in great shape and energetic.
It surprised me how much delight they got from meeting me.
Since I don’t speak Russian and they don’t speak English, we relied on machine translation to communicate. We would type what we wanted to say into our phones and then show the resulting ate translations to each other. We got to know each other by showing photographs of family, and our lives back in our respective homes.
At one point, they showed me a translation about our mutual family, generations back: “They owned many lands. Non-poor.”
On the morning after our meeting, we stopped at the market in Riga — the capital of Latvia — where we bought flowers and candles. I remember waiting outside of the market with our driver, really experiencing the type of cold air endemic to northern climates such as this. I reflected that nobody in my family had breathed the air in this city for decades.
Our road trip to our destination had taken us only a few hours but had been hectic. The mid-2000s era GPS crapped out on us, so we had to rely on getting directions from passers-by walking along the side of the road. One helpful man even got in the car to show us the way to the next town, shouting as he held his flip phone.
Sweeping The Graves
We came to our destination in the Lithuanian town of Alkiškiai, Lithuania.
A few years before this visit, the relatives had restored our ancestors’ graves with heavy marble, gravel, and small plants. In contrast to some of the other graves, it looked expensive. As I walked the grounds, I saw that many of the other graves existed in states of disrepair. I wondered if their family members had fled abroad, been deported, or had otherwise faded completely.
The graves that we had come to visit belonged to our shared family members. As I explained in a piece that I wrote in a literary journal shortly after this trip:
The grave was of my great-great grandfather, who was the biological connection between [us]. There too, was my great-grandmother, whose name Emilija Migla translated to the poetic “Emily Mist” in English, alongside two of her sons. There were photographs inlaid into the new marble of the graves, showing old world European women and men. Missing though, was my grandmother, Irena Migla, or, “Irene Mist”. She did not come to rest here; her fate lay elsewhere.
We used blue-and-white sponges to gently clean the gravestones and the marble, removing dust and litter that had collected. We took little brooms and swept. We placed the votive candles and flowers that we got from the market in Riga.
As we walked away from the graves, I remember looking at some of the other plots and seeing how uncared-for they were. Had the descendants of these people left and never come back? Had the whole family been taken?
Just outside of the main graveyard, amid a forest, stood lines of stone crosses. One cross for each young German man who had been infected with the ideological nonsense of the Nazis and paid. I wondered if anyone ever came to visit these stones. I wondered if one of the graves was that of a soldier who had carried out (or given) orders to destroy the family home in the nearby village of Laižuva.
I spent time wandering the graveyard, looking at the ground, the trees, and feeling the weather. I knew that I had to take it all in because I had no idea when I would return. But I hoped that I would.
I stood with my relatives as we took pictures of ourselves near the graves.
Before leaving this place, we drank tea and at black bread with cheese just as the mist coalesced into a drizzle.
Mere reflections on time and place
Since this time, I felt like I slipped through a portal into an adjacent universe. Like in Murakami’s 1Q84, things mostly remained the same, but I also noticed slight alterations in the things around me or in my perceptions of them.
I have thought more about the excitement my relatives felt upon meeting me. I know that they had been looking for family, just as I had. That brought us together. I considered how different our lives had been up to this point
I have thought more about my ancestors. What role do the ancestors play in my life? What duty do we owe to those who came before? How do our ancestors’ lives shape our lives, and how do we develop the stories that we tell about them?
I am still working on these questions and others. My thinking often returns to our graveyard visit, which helped me confront a bit of the void that I had always felt in place of a family of which I had once been part. Now that I had seen the lands where my family had lived for centuries — or longer — I felt like they had some reality, even if slight. Even if the physical people had gone without leaving memories of their being, here I had found traces of the ancestors.